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Trib matches $1,000 settlement in lawsuit against Highland School District

| Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

A lawsuit against Highlands School District won by the Valley News Dispatch has ended with a $1,000 settlement, which the newspaper's parent company has matched and donated to a local food bank.

The Allegheny Valley Association of Churches food bank will receive a $2,000 check from Trib Total Media to help with the demand for food during the holiday season.

Tina McCallian, administrative assistant at the Association of Churches, said the organization, despite receiving $1,000 in late donations since last week, still had to dip into its coffers in order to supply $15 turkey vouchers to all its clients.

"The money that the Trib is donating (to) the food bank will help replenish things for Christmas," McCallian said. "(And) it'll help with Thanksgiving."

"In this case, winning was never about a financial gain; it was about getting information for the public," said Ralph Martin, president and CEO of Trib Total Media.

Martin said once the case was decided by the courts, the Valley News Dispatch and Trib Total Media wanted to "extract some nominal payment" from the district to acknowledge that the board's action was not correct under the law.

"We asked for $1,000, which we agreed to donate to a local charity," Martin said. "We decided to match the $1,000 and donate $2,000 to the local food bank.

"The public's interest was served and a good cause was the beneficiary," he said.

The school district approved the settlement on Monday, although it was at no cost to the district.

Solicitor Ira Weiss, whose opinion the school board used in holding the executive session, paid for appeals costs for that reason and the $1,000 settlement.

"It's good that it's over and we can all move on," Weiss said Monday.

The lawsuit resulted from a board meeting on June 8, 2009, at which time directors went into a closed-door executive session, excluding the public and a Valley News Dispatch reporter.

That meeting involved the board and representatives of the Heights Plaza Shopping Center, one of the district's largest taxpayers, to discuss a pending tax assessment appeal by the shopping center's owners.

An objection was raised by the reporter as well as at least two board members, Judy Wisner and Karen Wantland, to closing the meeting.

Weiss' opinion was that the subject of the meeting involved a matter of potential litigation, which is an open meetings exception under the Sunshine Law, and the executive session took place.

The Valley News Dispatch and Trib Total Media, filed suit soon after.

In August 2009, Allegheny County Judge Joseph James ruled in favor of the school district, and the newspaper appealed that ruling to Commonwealth Court.

"The judge's ruling stated what they did was legal," said Jeff Domenick, Valley News Dispatch editor. "That doesn't mean what they did was right. We were standing up for the public's right to know what their school board is doing."

A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel overturned James' ruling.

Commonwealth Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote in the decision, that the private meeting with Heights Plaza Shopping Center representatives "has the odor of favoritism that the Sunshine Act does not tolerate."

The opinion essentially said citizens have the right to know when the board and other public entities meet and the right to attend those meetings.

"This clear and specific right is not diminished by general policies and trends favoring negotiation, settlement and alternative dispute resolution," McCullough wrote.

In July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear Highlands' appeal of the Commonwealth Court ruling.

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